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How tattoos could be boosting your immune system

Scientists have been curious about the effect that tattoos have on the immune system for a while. Christopher Lynn, an anthropologist at the University of Alabama, published research in 2016 suggesting that getting tattooed may boost your body’s immune response and make you less susceptible to common infections, like colds. How’s that, you ask? Long story, short: Tattoos are wounds and when your body is hurt, your immune system swoops in like a cellular superhero that fights infections in not just the tattoo, but throughout the whole body.

Lynn traveled to the Samoan Islands in 2018 with fellow anthropologist Michaela Howells to study the potential benefits of tattooing. the Samoan Islands. “Samoans have a long, continuous history of extensive tattooing,” Lynn said, in The Conversation. “Working with contemporary tattooists in American Samoa, we wanted to see if we'd find the same link to enhanced immune response.”

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What Lynn found was surprising, since most of the research about tattoos out there consists of warnings about their potential dangers. A tattoo is a wound, after all. How can purposely hurting yourself make you stronger?

Well, Lynn explained, your body responds to the wounds created by tattooing in two ways. First, getting a tattoo activates your immune system and sends white blood cells out to protect you from infection. Next, your body initiates what scientists call “adaptive responses,” which means that it creates antibodies to fight off any potential threats. Basically, the wound a tattoo creates triggers your immune system to both protect you and defend you.

But, if the body is busy healing a tattoo, wouldn’t that deplete its ability to fight off other infections? Yes, said Lynn. When you get one tattoo, your body has to work to heal your skin and while it’s healing, you are more prone to infection. That’s why having an inking habit could help you reap the benefits, which “appear to be dependent on receiving multiple tattoos,” Lynn explained. The idea here is that the immune-boosting benefits of being tattooed are cumulative. I can’t wait to tell my conservative family that the ink art that covers much of my body could actually be making me stronger.

But, before you cancel your gym membership, stop eating as many veggies, and book a subscription with your favorite tattoo studio, you should know that these findings are still developing. “It’s not clear that the benefits tattooing provides are big enough to make a clinical difference on health, so don’t expect a new tattoo to cancel out a diet of cheeseburgers and fries,” Lynn said.

But tattoos have always been on my plan for super hot aging and it’s pretty cool to think that they might be tricking my immune system into working a little harder for me.